How to stop compulsive behaviour?
October 13, 2014 4:50 PM   Subscribe

I have problems with shopping compulsively. I want to stop so I can work on paying down debt, and the feelings of guilt and deception when it comes to hiding things. But I haven't found a way that sticks. Does anyone have any experience with beating addictions on a day to day basis? Or in talking yourself out of cravings?

Background - I have bipolar disorder and I think I've used spending/acquiring things as a way to deal with feelings, and it's just become an automatic habit, like smoking I suppose. I have mentioned this to various therapists I've seen over the years, and none have really understood how it affects my life (one simply advised me to make a shopping list before I go to the supermarket). I am open to further therapy, but I would like ideas on what else I can do, or any experiences.

I have an issue with walking away from deals or things I'll never see again - not things I need, but anything from small consumer goods to food in the supermarket. There doesn't seem to be any way I can talk myself into walking away - not reminding myself how bad I'll feel later, not thinking about the debt I already have mounting up or the multiples of the same item I have, not thinking about bigger goals I could use that money for. Consequently, I end up buying things I don't need all the time, and it's embarrassing - the number of packages I get delivered, the debt I'm in, or having to sneak things into the place I share with my SO. My work suffers because I'm distracted by the particular types of things I tend to buy, and I seem to go through 'obsessions' where one month I might want to get mugs, and another month I might need to get, say, pastry forks. It's completely irrational but very compulsive.

It's putting a strain on my relationship, and I will be paying off my debts for the next few years at least, meaning it will be harder to do things I really want to do such as travel or secure a future for me and SO. Knowing this doesn't make it easier to walk away, and that's embarrassing too. I've tried various methods - at the moment I'm stickign to a cash budget but I get this antsy sensation, like I imagine an alcoholic does when they want to drink. How do I deal with this?
posted by anonymous to Health & Fitness (23 answers total) 14 users marked this as a favorite
Replace it : Take up mystery "shopping".

With smart phone apps it's quick & easy, hunt and find, scavenger hunt and shoot, handle items and set them free again. & get paid for it. Most times you don't actually ever buy a thing.

More time "shopping", less time SHOPPING.

Some groups actually have you setting up merchandise, others just counting & photographing.

You have to start slow to build up your rep to be able to reserve more at a time.

Me mail me for suggestions / referral codes.

Cut the crap: gamification of selling it or just bag & donate. Start with a bag a week and make it a bag a day.
posted by Buttons Bellbottom at 5:02 PM on October 13, 2014

Show your therapist this question. If that doesn't lead to some more serious discussion, another (possibly additional) therapist is needed.
posted by Lesser Shrew at 5:05 PM on October 13, 2014 [11 favorites]

Get your SO to make all the trips to the store until you're out of the habit of buying things. That will give you time to experience the pleasure of successfully saving, which should be seen as a positive activity and not a restriction.
posted by michaelh at 5:07 PM on October 13, 2014 [1 favorite]

Don't try to talk yourself out of it -- shift your focus to a physical sensation to distract yourself when you feel the need to buy something. Wear a rubberband or a hair elastic band around your wrist. Snap it when you get the antsy feeling. Snap it repeatedly if required, preferably while walking away from the item or from your computer. Require yourself to get a large glass of ice water and drink the whole thing as quickly as you can. Force yourself to do 20 jumping jacks or something similar.
posted by erst at 5:09 PM on October 13, 2014 [2 favorites]

Well, since you mentioned alcoholism, here are a couple of things that work for many people who are trying to stay sober:

1) Get involved with a support community - usually that's AA for alcoholics, but not always - and reach out to someone in it when you need to. If you don't want to find a real-life group, there are surely online communities devoted to mutual help with your issues.

2) "play back the tape" as the old-timers would say - that is, before you say screw it, I'll have a drink (buy these pastry forks etc.) , clearly visualize what the consequences are going to be. (By this point, people need to be aware that they are not going to have "a" drink, they are going to have as many as they physically can consume). For your situation, you've enumerated several of these consequences - shame, hiding, debt. Focus on avoiding those consequences, and not on the purchase that seems appealing in the moment. I notice you say that you cannot seem to do this. You should start thinking of that as behavior that you are changing, not as an essential feature of yourself.

3) Be aware of HALT: hungry, angry, lonely, tired. If you are experiencing any of these states, you are in greater danger of relapse. Proceed to item 1).

4) Today is not the day. I have used this. It's been a long time since I was struggling, day by day, with urges to drink. But I used to tell myself things like "If it's such a good idea to start drinking again, I can do it tomorrow, but it's not happening today."

5) Extreme measures. I used to have to do stuff like go to bed when I got home from work, and get up when the liquor store was already closed. For some reason, bars and the beer at gas stations didn't tempt me at all. With compulsive shopping or spending, this kind of thing may be harder, but it could work. Get rid of your credit cards, for example, and deal only in cash that is budgeted.

Something that has helped me reduce impulse buying online is to get in the habit of putting things I see on Amazon on a wish list, not in the cart. This has been surprisingly helpful; it seems to feed the need to obtain comfort or emotional relief or distraction by buying something, but the credit card balance does not increase.
posted by thelonius at 5:14 PM on October 13, 2014 [26 favorites]

1. Cut up your credit cards right now.

The rest is one day at a time. When you don't have a craving, sit down and think about what the worst thing is that will happen if you get a craving that you don't satisfy. Really, think it through -- you want a widget but you don't buy it. Will you be sad? Distracted? Maybe. Will you die? Will you absolutely die if you don't buy it? No. A craving is not that bad -- it won't kill you, it really, really won't. Our minds give our cravings a lot more credit than they deserve -- cravings won't kill us, ignoring them won't create disaster.

You get through one craving, one compulsion, then the next and the next.

Also, find a therapist, one that specializes in bi-polar and compulsive / addictive behavior.
posted by mibo at 5:27 PM on October 13, 2014 [2 favorites]

Don't carry money, or only carry the bare minimum you need for bus fare and an emergency phone call. (Put the emergency phone call money out where your SO can see it at the end of the day.) You can invest in good-fors/gift cards for places where you must spend money-- if you must eat lunch out, carry a gift card for the amount you can spend in a month at that single place only. If you overspend, you don't get lunch for a few days. Have your credit card company change your account numbers, and have a trusted friend or your SO take the cards from you. Set up your accounts for auto-pay. You can also auto-load a prepaid credit card once a month with a spending allowance, and not carry any other money.

It's drastic and unpleasant but it'll help you control the habit while you're in therapy. Like overeating, overspending is one of those things that can't actually be quit completely, so it's tricky. For myself, I made myself earn the privilege of carrying cash after a long period of nothing, and as I dealt with the underlying anxiety, it got better. Good luck!
posted by blnkfrnk at 5:35 PM on October 13, 2014 [1 favorite]

Unlink your credit cards from all your online payment gateways and mechanisms and then cut them up.
posted by turbid dahlia at 5:39 PM on October 13, 2014 [1 favorite]

Does anyone have any experience with beating addictions on a day to day basis? Or in talking yourself out of cravings? ... I get this antsy sensation, like I imagine an alcoholic does when they want to drink.

This twitchy feeling used to make me its home whenever -- and this may sound trivial but sadly it wasn't -- I thought of playing Word Warp on my smartphone. That game was weirdly addictive. Possibly relevant: I've been diagnosed with mood instability (which seems to be the new bipolar) and ADD.

Thinking about the consequences (of time-wasting) was pretty much useless.

What worked: going cold turkey, and making it into a don't-break-the-chain event, with a tiny award for each day I didn't play. (Specifically, I got one dollar, which I could spend absolutely guilt-free. I have a notebook in which I enter such rewards, and spend them when they add up to, for example, a really nice pair of socks from Sock Dreams, who offer free shipping for any size order, which really helps when you're imagining how many dollars you'll need to accrue to buy a specific pair of socks, and also means that shipping-thrift won't cause you to delay your reward.) There's an exception clause, which I hardly ever use, for when I find myself in danger of crying in public and need something immediate that'll distract my brain.

It's been maybe a year now, and the twitchy feeling is completely deadened, at least insofar as it pertains to games. (Still some issues with Instagram and, uh, Metafilter.)

It's possible that guilt-free-shopping-dollar-accrual is the wrong reward when shopping itself is the problem. (Or maybe it would work perfectly, I dunno.) Maybe flip it around and look for time-rewards? Like websurfing or television? 10 minutes per day of no-compulsive-shopping, which you could either use for immediate gratification of watching cute kitten antics, or save up for an episode of whatever TV program you find entertaining, or an episode of something someone else has recommended that you're curious about, or whatever. Maybe something trashy, that you wouldn't normally let yourself watch, but in this case you know you really OUGHT to watch it to obtain that reinforcement.
posted by feral_goldfish at 5:41 PM on October 13, 2014 [2 favorites]

My therapist used to say, "If you don't have an internal structure, build an external scaffold." In other words, if you don't have the internal emotional resources to control your spending (it's okay- I don't, either), then draw on some external resources. You can:

-close your credit card accounts
-block your favorite shopping websites using a browser extension
-take different routes home and to work to avoid stores
-have your paycheck deposited to a savings account that takes two days for bank transfer, with spending money transferred automatically
-have your partner do the grocery shopping, or shop with cash (maybe as a team)

You can use these structures to give yourself some breathing room while you work on the emotional parts of your spending.

There are also support groups for compulsive spenders, like Debtors Anonymous. Why not look into it, and see if you can develop some more tools for soothing yourself without purchasing material things.

I say this all as someone who went on a $1200 shopping spree yesterday that I feel sick to my stomach about, and I already know I need to return a lot of what I bought. But at other times I've had good sobriety with spending and improved my life. It's not impossible, and you can grow and change and have a life you are proud of. You aren't the first person to struggle with this, and you won't be the last. It can be better.
posted by Snarl Furillo at 6:33 PM on October 13, 2014 [8 favorites]

I'm working on this too, coming from a childhood of poverty where I was told that I couldn't have anything for myself while my mother conversely used constant retail therapy.

What's worked for me is brutal honesty with my husband about my desire to compulsively shop, about the reasons I'm doing so, about the impact it has on our relationship. I go talk to him about money things especially when it's difficult and embarrassing (when I need help, when I slip up). I am lucky that he is a font of supportiveness and patience. We made a deal together that we would discuss all purchases over $50, but this has had the impact of making me want to discuss all purchases (and usually, I would sooner not buy anything than discuss it). I've cut spending by about $600 a month this way.

God, it's embarrassing though, isn't it, talking about it? But honesty and openness is the first step, the only way to make it better. Good for you for starting.
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 6:44 PM on October 13, 2014 [3 favorites]

Repeating this phrase to myself when I am about to engage in the unwanted behavior helps - "the urge to [engage in unwanted behavior] will pass whether I [engage in unwanted behavior] or not" For example, "the urge to eat cupcakes will pass whether I eat cupcakes or not"

Also, break your habit into tiny steps in your mind. You're shopping. You go down an aisle that contains nothing on your list. You stop and ponder the items on this aisle. You reach for thingy and pick it up for a closer look. You put it in your cart. You haul it around for another half hour while you're shopping. You unload it for the cashier. So many opportunities to intervene on your own behalf...or not! Be conscious of these moments in your mind. The little choices.

Envision new ways to talk to yourself about your purchases the next time something catches your eye. Replace "Oh it's just this one thing and it goes nicely with the thing I bought a year ago" with "I'm putting this thing down so I can walk in my home and look SO in the eye without a shifty glance". Replace "I've never seen these baubles for anywhere near this price, it would be foolish to not get them" with "Buying this thing would be a great idea if only airlines accepted payment in baubles and I want to travel".

Instead of cutting into your savings from not shopping to buy an occasional reward for yourself, you could limit your rewards to purchases you make using funds earned selling things you don't need. Craigslist, ebay, garage sale, etc. Only those funds can be used for 'extras'. Definitely involves making a deal with yourself and sticking to it!! Good luck.
posted by txtwinkletoes at 6:52 PM on October 13, 2014 [8 favorites]

The easiest way to stop shopping is to make it very difficult to do so.

Leave the credit cards at home and only bring enough cash for your actual shopping needs. If it's something like groceries, set a fairly tight budget so there simply is not room for you to add any expensive extras.
posted by zug at 10:04 PM on October 13, 2014 [2 favorites]

It took me years to get out of the compulsive shopping habit.

I think your analogy for smoking is a good one. When I quit smoking, the philosophy was: Keep quitting. I applied the same to getting better with money. I outlined budgets, revised budgets, and would forgive myself and start all over again when I relapsed and went on an unplanned shopping spree. Eventually, you get better at it.

Recently, I read blogs which compared spenders and savers. In it, they said the major difference between spenders and savers is that spenders have an emotional attachment to stuff, whereas savers have an emotional attachment to money. Knowing this tidbit has helped me along in my recovery. Instead of putting all left over money on debt repayment, I created a small "planned spending" account: a bit of money I put aside each month so that in 3 months I'll be able to go shopping for clothes, in one year I'll be able to afford a trip, etc. I now focus on feeling proud of myself when I see that account go up. And the good news is: if ever I relapse, there is money in the account and I won't need to use credit. (Which somehow makes me all the more attached to my spending "buffer").
posted by Milau at 4:24 AM on October 14, 2014 [2 favorites]

A professional organizer taught me to take photos of things I want instead of buying them. It's surprisingly effective for me. Because I am getting something but it's a digital photo instead of an object I don't have room for.

Also, it is difficult to cope with the feelings of discomfort that come from wanting to buy something and then not following up on that impulse. As mentioned above, you need a strategy in place so you can teach your self what to do instead of buying something you don't need. A psychiatrist who dealt with people suffering from 0CD, in the 70s, got them all to develop alternative strategies for their usual compulsive behavior. These were behaviors like washing their hands so often they bled, etc. everybody in the group had a different strategy. One guy went out of his house, where he worked, and gardened. A woman picked up her knitting. It doesn't really matter what the strategy is, including snapping a rubber band, as long as you have one.

I cannot find the science right now, but the length of cravings is fairly limited. They feel urgent, they feel impossible to manage, they feel like they will last forever. But that is not true. I think they last 15 minutes or less, on average, but I am guessing. Anyway, developing effective self talk is really helpful. If you can remind yourself of that, and leave where you are for 15 minutes, or avoid shopping temptations altogether, that may help.

Use all the tools you can think of and get support. I am addicted to a person, for example. So I am about to add a note to my phone reminding me why I need to stop contacting this person.

Finally, get support. The most toxic things about compulsive behavior IMHO are the secrecy and lies that are built on shame. We hate ourselves and believe others will hate us, too. That's a lie. Show this thread to your old or a new therapist. Find an online or real life support group for shopping addicts.

Your life can improve. Also, Sometimes it's possible to take it a day at a time. That's too damn big. Sometimes you have to take it hour by hour or breath by breath. That's okay. You can do this. Be kind and gentle to yourself when you slip. Love yourself anyway. Memail me if you need an occasional cheerleader. Good luck!
posted by Bella Donna at 9:22 AM on October 14, 2014 [2 favorites]

SmartRecovery is an online support community for all sorts of addictions. The focus is on making and maintaining change / supporting new habits.
posted by egk at 9:58 AM on October 14, 2014

I do not have this particular compulsion, and so I can't offer specific practical advice, but I do deal with a compulsive and automatic habit. What is working best for me right now is a sort of mantra: "I am practicing resisting this urge."

I've failed many times to just quit doing The Thing. So instead of trying for cold-turkey, I'm taking the philosophy that it is a habit, and therefore I can break it/build up a competing habit, bit by bit. If I can resist or tone down an urge once a day, that's improvement; maybe yesterday I did The Thing 10 times, but today I did it 9, and in doing so I Practiced Resisting so my Resistance skill is now +1. I didn't completely stop doing The Thing, but 9 times is better than 10, and stopping myself is a skill I need to learn, and today I practiced. Which makes it more likely that I will be able to Resist again tomorrow, maybe once, maybe even twice or three times if I'm lucky - or maybe no times, in which case there's always the next day. I consider 10 times (or whatever number/frequency) to be "baseline," because that's how much it would happen if I didn't try at all. Don't consider 0 times to be "baseline." That sets you up to believe you've failed, and once you believe you've failed you'll want to give in and do it some more to soothe yourself.

Start with very small resistances, like thinking about a purchase at all rather than doing it compulsively and thoughtlessly. If you do that, even if you buy the thing anyway, that is a victory. Don't make "not buying something" the only valid achievement. Every time you successfully resist even the tiniest bit, you get to feel AWESOME and IN CONTROL OF YOUR LIFE and be ridiculously positive and pleased with yourself, and then you gradually step up the difficulty as it gets easier for you. It is an absolute victory for you to go on a cash budget and to make it through those antsy feelings even though they are uncomfortable. You're Practicing! +1 Resistance!

This is not a quick solution, and I understand that maybe it is untenable for you because of that fact. But as a general mindset, I find it so much nicer than flogging myself constantly for every "slip" and every "failure" to be perfect (where perfect = never doing The Thing).

A wise person recently reminded me that I should treat myself like an animal. Hear me out! If your beloved pet (cat/dog/horse/whatever) had a bad habit, would your training strategy be to yell at them and punish them ruthlessly every time they did the undesirable behavior? Of course not. We know that would just make them all the more fearful and anxious, and probably worsen the habit. So why would you do that to yourself? Praise any improvement - ANY improvement - and offer unconditional love, and you're more likely to see results, whether in a puppy or a person.
posted by po at 11:02 AM on October 14, 2014 [7 favorites]

Delete your saved credit card profiles from all online retailers.

Cut up all your cards and switch to only using cash. As in paper cash, not a debit card. Ideally, don't have a bank card at all and thus have to go to the teller to withdraw money from your account. If that's too inconvenient because of the bank's location/hours, keep most of your money in a savings account so your bank card can only be used for ATM withdrawals instead of being accepted as payment at credit card readers. Keep the bank card at home so you have to plan ahead to go get cash before you can go shopping. Only withdraw as much cash as you need for a particular grocery shopping trip or other outing at a time. Yes, there might be extra fees for banking like this, but those fees are going to cost you a lot less per month than the adverted impulsive/compulsive spending.

When you feel like shopping online, create wishlists on Amazon instead. I have a bit of an shopping problem myself but I've found that spending hours creating, organizing, and curating my various wishlists is often just as satisfying as actually buying the stuff. Keep one Public list for stuff you're actually really super sure you want pretty soon (e.g., stuff you'd be happy to receive for Christmas). Make all your other lists Private so you can go nuts filling them with every little thing you desire without worrying about anyone seeing your embarrassing hoarder impulses or inadvertently gifting you something that's very low-priority.

When you feel like shopping in person, go to the library. Browsing for books, movies, music, etc. feels a lot like shopping and you get the same bringing stuff home experience. (Just remember to bring it all back before the due date!)

When you're out and about and see something you really want to buy, take pictures and detailed notes, then go home and add it to your Amazon wishlist. Even if it's not something Amazon sells, they have the capability of adding free-form items to lists now so you can enter the item name, brand, notes on where to get it, etc.

Once in a while, when you know your budget can afford it and you feel like you deserve a treat, give your SO cash and ask him/her to use his/her card to buy something for you off your Public wish list.
posted by Jacqueline at 12:09 PM on October 14, 2014

Oh, another thing that helps satisfy my own compulsive shopping / hoarding impulses without spending money is to go "shopping" for websites, online documents, videos, etc. and hoarding all the links and/or downloading/saving all the files instead. My browser's Bookmarks section is completely ridiculous now and I'm constantly juggling the contents of my hard drive but that activity goes a long way towards mitigating my cravings to acquire stuff.
posted by Jacqueline at 12:18 PM on October 14, 2014

Also, feel free to MeMail me if you want to chat about this in more detail with someone who has struggled with same problem for 15+ years. I can identify with so much of the feelings and behavior that you described in your AskMe that if it wasn't for the timing of your post and a few significant details being different, I'd suspect that I'd posted it myself while drunk. :) So I'm all about pragmatic workarounds, not judgment, and brainstorming ideas for your problem helps me reinforce for myself what I need to do to manage my own.
posted by Jacqueline at 12:32 PM on October 14, 2014

I've definitely struggled with this too - for me it's another manifestation of self-sabotage. What I found to help was when the urge to shop came up I would go to a thrift store. I could usually find some DVD or tchotchke that gave me the same thrill to purchase it. Later not only was it much easier to get rid of something inexpensive, but it reminded me that the object itself wasn't the point of shopping.
posted by bendy at 2:07 PM on October 14, 2014 [3 favorites]

You need some Gail Vaz Oxlade in your life!

Not sure where you are or if it's accessible, but you can watch some of her shows on (cringe-inducing) The shows are very formulaic and sometimes hokey, but even I've found a lot of helpful tips there (and I'm an obsessive saver!).
posted by Mrs. Rattery at 12:40 PM on October 15, 2014

Relevant to your interests:
posted by Buttons Bellbottom at 9:31 AM on November 6, 2014

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